Five species of sea turtles lay eggs along the west and south coasts of Sri Lanka. The green turtle is the most common, followed by the olive ridley and the hawksbill. The leatherback and loggerhead are both huge, reaching 2m or more in length. During what should be long lives (if they don’t end up in a net or soup pot), female turtles make numerous visits to the south coast to lay eggs in the sand of the same beach where they themselves were born. A few weeks later, hundreds of baby turtles make a perilous journey back to the water.
Most of the tiny turtles are quickly gobbled up by birds, fish, people and other critters. And many never hatch at all, since human egg-poachers work overtime to satisfy the demand for turtle omelettes. However, the turtle hatcheries on the coast around Bentota and Kosgoda claim to increase the odds for the turtles by paying locals for the eggs at a rate slightly above that which they would fetch on the market. The eggs are then incubated by the hatchery. After a short stay in a tank the babies are released under the cover of darkness (in the wild, the babies also emerge at night).
The reality of the situation is that the turtle hatcheries might be doing more damage than good. When a baby turtle hatches it retains a part of the yolk from the egg, which acts as a vital energy source when the turtles first swim out to sea. By keeping the babies for even a very short time in a tank, they do not gain the benefit of this first food source. In addition, mature female turtles like to return to the beach where they hatched in order to lay their own eggs: if they have been born in captivity, they will not have obtained a ‘magnetic imprint’ of their beach of birth and thus they are thought to be unable to return to shore to lay their eggs. For a truly sustainable turtle conservation effort, it’s better that the eggs are simply left on the beach where they were laid and given protection there. For more on this see www.srilankaecotourism.com/turtle_hatchery_threat.htm.
Although the conservation benefits of the hatcheries are limited, there’s no denying that the turtles are awfully cute and make for an entertaining visit. Visits rarely last more than about 20 minutes. Expect to see babies, as well as adults who have been injured by nets or in other calamities. Many environmental groups recommend you do not visit the more commercial hatcheries around Bentota area.
Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project On the beachside of Galle Rd, just north of Kosgoda, this volunteer-run operation has been here for 18 years. It’s a very simple affair.
Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery Turn down a small track on the A2 at the Km72/73 post to find this operation, located in a quiet spot right on a pristine beach. Look for the 50-year-old turtle and the blind albino turtle, both of which have miraculously survived both humans (nets) and nature (tsunami). Arrive at 6pm and you can help release the three-day-old hatchlings into the ocean (Rs 1500).